Saturday, August 20, 2011

Three Victorian Detective Novels: Review

Three Victorian Detective Novels edited and introduced by E. F. Bleiler contains some of the earliest modern detective novels available. The stories selected are meant to represent various moments in the history of the detective novel. We have a story that gives us one of the first more fictional accounts of police work. Previous works were more like casebooks--more factual and less narrative license. Then we have a story of theft that is more typical of the Victorian domestic novel spiced up with sensation. The final story gives us one of the earliest locked room mysteries...and one of the first stories to deliberately attempt to outwit the reader.

The first novel is
The Unknown Weapon (1864) by Andrew Forrester. It is about the death of the son of a miserly old man who is killed while apparently in the the process of breaking into his own father's house. He has been stabbed with a weapon that no seems to be able to identify. This story has the honor of being quite probably the first novel about the Metropolitan Police (formed in 1829) , the first modern detective novel, and the first novel featuring a professional female detective. She is absolutely unnamed in this volume, but in other stories by Forrester, she is referred to as Mrs. G---- of the Metropolitan Police. She makes reference to herself and another female officer as constables...and I find it interesting to have references to female constables at this early date. Mrs. G---- is a thoroughly scientific detective, reminding the reader of Holmes. Had she the advantages of his training at university, I'm sure she would have examined her own bits of fluff under the microscope rather than sending them off in a tin box and directing "it to the gentleman who is good enough to control these kind of investigations." She faithfully takes up every piece of evidence, giving it a more thorough going-over than the local constable, looks over the scene of the crime, and thinks the problem through with logic that Holmes could not fault. There is no "feminine intuition" at work; it is a thoughtful, orderly investigation. The grand finale is a bit of a let-down--but over all a very good early detective story. Three and a half stars.

Next up: My Lady's Money (1877) by Wilkie Collins, a tale of theft. Lady Lydiard's husband has died and while going through his effects she finds letters indicating that he had a cousin with a family in desperate circumstances. The cousin, who has since passed on himself, had been led to believe that Lady Lydiard prevented her husband from being any assistance to his family. So she decides to make things right by anonymously sending the cousin's family 500 pounds sealed in an envelope and to be distributed by a minister. However, when the minister receives the envelope, the money has vanished. Suspicion falls upon Lady Lydiard's young companion--a girl that Lady Lydiard has taken a great fancy to and whom her ladyship believes absolutely to be innocent. The police are no help in clearing the young woman's name and soon "Old Sharon"--an eccentric former lawyer--is hired to get to the bottom of the mystery. Even the dullest of readers ought to spot the thief straight away. True to the most common Victorian forms, Collins does not spend any effort in trying to keep the criminal's identity hidden. The main point of the story is to figure out how the detective will be able to bring the crime home to him and what justice there will be. I enjoyed Collins' style very much--it was closer to The Moonstone than I felt The Woman in White to be. But I didn't warm to his "Old Sharon" as much as I did to Forrester's Mrs. G---------. One of the best parts was Tommie, the little Scotch Terrier--to whom Collins surpisingly gave a "speaking" part. For instance, "A low growl followed the fresh young voice, and added (in dog's language), 'Much worse, my lady--much worse!'" A nice little story--not quite as good as the first. Three stars.

The third novel is Israel Zangwill's The Big Bow Mystery. As mentioned above, it is one of the earliest examples of the locked room mystery. The solution may seem a bit trite to those of us in the 21st Century, but it is good to remember how puzzling and fresh it must have been to readers of the London Star in 1891. The story begins at the rooming house of Mrs. Drabdump (gotta love those Victorian names). She has been directed to wake one of her tenants, Mr. Arthur Constant, early so he can make an important meeting. Naturally, she finds that she has overslept and is rushing 'round to prepare breakfast. But when she tries to rouse Constant, she receives no answer. At first she is not too alarmed. The poor man had been suffering from toothache and perhaps he feel into a deep slumber once he finally did get to sleep. But when repeated efforts fail to waken him and a final, violent assault on his door does not bring him out, she feels sure that he must be lying murdered in his bed. She rushes across the street to the home of retired policeman, George Grodman. Grodman succeeds in breaking down the locked and bolted door and a terrible sight is revealed. Constant is lying in bed with his throat cut. He is still he has not been long dead. The windows are all fastened tight. There is no weapon to be found in the room and no way the culprit could have escaped. Inspector Edward Wimp (snort) of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate officially. But there seems to be no solution. There is no item in the room with which the dead man could have harmed himself, therefore it cannot be suicide. There is no way anyone could have gotten out of the room, therefore it cannot be murder. Eventually, however, clues come Wimp's way that convince him that Tom Mortlake, Constant's fellow tenant and supposed rival, has committed the crime. A trial and conviction follows....but Grodman produces the final twist that produces the complete solution. This is a well-written and quite witty short novel. The final twist is ingenious for its time. Four stars for this story. And a final rating of three and a half stars for the entire collection.


Unknown said...

Nice review! I'm familiar with most of what Dover publishes, but for some reason I hadn't run across this one before.

wutheringwillow said...

Great review as usual! Must read these stories!